Psalm 7:12–19; Genesis 10:1–11:9; Matthew 5:1–16

Originally posted 1/9/2016—revised and updated 1/9/2018

Psalm 7:12–19: Our psalmist views humankind as bifurcated between the righteous and those who do evil as he observes that God “exacts justice for the righteous,” (12a) but also that God “utters doom each day” (12b) regarding the wicked.

Our poet employs a stark military image of God punishing the man who refuses to repent:
If a man repent not, He [God] sharpens His sword,
He pulls back His bow and aims it.
And for him [the wicked man], He readies the tools of death,
lets fly His arrows at the fleers.” (13, 14).

In short, the wicked will eventually pay for their crimes, even though God seems to be aiming but not necessarily releasing his arrows of punishment upon them. The key point here is that it the wicked who are responsible for their deeds, not God.

In one of the more ironic metaphors in the Psalms, our poet describes the gradual evolution of a man turning to wickedness as a perverse kind of pregnancy that goes through three stages:
Look, one spawns wrongdoing,
grows bug with mischief,
gives birth to lies.” (15)

Moreover, the wicked man cannot blame others for his condition; he has become wicked all on his own by virtue of the choices he has made:
A pit he delved, and dug it,
and he fell in the trap he made.” (16)

This is quite a different view than our own culture’s tendency to excuse crime and wrongdoing based on a theory that wicked acts are the result of exogenous circumstances—that the person who commits wrongdoing is some kind of victim. But as far as the psalmist is concerned, wicked deeds and words are the perpetrator’s responsibility and they eventually backfire::
His mischief comes down on his head,
on his skull his outrage descends.” (17).

Or as my father used to day, “The chickens always come home to roost.” Needless to say, our righteous psalmist is happy about God’s requirement for justice to eventually triumph:
I acclaim the Lord for His righteousness,
let me hymn the Lord’s name on high.” (18)

As should we. While it seems so often that injustice reigns, it would be insanely difficult to live in a world where there was no justice or righteousness at all.

Genesis 10:1–11:9: As we’ve observed before, without a belief in an afterlife, the only way one could be remembered is by one’s progeny, which is why Jews were so diligent about genealogy—right up to jesus’ own genealogy in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Inasmuch as the flood the story makes it clear there were only three sons of Noah (and their wives) survived, their respective descendants are listed. Here in Genesis we have the starkest example yet of how crucial the authors believed being able to trace one’s roots really was. Moreover, this particular genealogy traces not only individuals, but families and then entire nations.

One wonders if this list was solely compiled by the Jews writing Genesis, or if other nations of that time also recorded genealogies, especially ones dating back to the flood story, which as we’ve noted earlier had widespread currency beyond Israel. I suspect genealogies were important throughout most of civilization BCE—all following the basic structure we see here in Genesis: organized by families, families into tribes, and tribes into nations.

Along the way, some individuals Nimrod receive special attention: “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said,Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” (10:9) Perhaps this is because “he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh.” (10:11), a civilization which figures prominently in Israel’s later story.

The same for Caanan, another big player, whose geography included “the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.” (10:19). One’s eye does not skip over those famous cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, which will figure later in the book.

One comes to the end of chapter 10 with a clear sense that humankind is back from the almost dead—and back with a vengeance.

This of course leads to the Babel story which solves a particular problem. Inasmuch as the Noah story asserts everyone is descended from a single family, these descendants quite naturally all speak the same language. But by the time the authors wrote Genesis it was apparent that numerous languages abounded , requiring an explanation. They found the solution by writing about those folks who settled on the plain of Shinar and who started building a tower as an expression of their technological prowess as well as their pride: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4)

In fact, God is a bit worried about their technical prowess: “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (11:6) Which is certainly the direction our own culture has taken now that we possess the capability to create and modify life itself. We have created our own metaphorical towers of Babel.

The human pride and arrogance that distressed the antediluvian God is now again on full display. But God had promised not to wipe people out, so he resorts to Plan B: “let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (11:7)

For the authors of Genesis, this a nice explanation that aligns their national story with reality on the ground. And we also benefit now by having the word “babble” passed down to us. In fact, what we witness every day in the print and electronic media reminds us that the echoes of Babel persist right to today.

Matthew 5:1–16: We arrive with Jesus on the hillside outside Capernaum. The crowd is already there, Jesus sits down and his disciples gather round as Jesus teaches the most famous list since the Decalogue. Just as the original Ten Commandments established the basis of Israel’s civilization, the Beatitudes form the ethical basis of the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus will have much much to say throughout this gospel.

Perhaps their most radical aspect of Jesus’ list is that its ordinances do not begin with “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” but rather, the word “blessed.” This seems a clear indication of what Paul describes in Romans and Galatians as Christians living by a new and even more radical regime: the marvelous consequences of the operation of the Holy Spirit living within us.

The law is no longer an externality handed down from God above on stone tablets. Rather, Jesus is describing a state of being that comes from within one’s being. Our behavior has been turned inside out. We are blessed because we are. Just as God observed the goings-on at Babel, Jesus, as God on earth, knows well that we humans are disinclined to obey rules. Whatever we are, the fruits of out thoughts and deeds must arise from within us, nurtured by the Holy Spirit.

As many have observed before me, Jesus turns the moral order upside down. The poor in spirit rather than the connected or the powerful will inherit the kingdom—a direct assault on the religious establishment. The pure in heart, the emotionally downtrodden are more blessed than the perfectionist practice of the Pharisee sees God. And so forth.

From our vantage point 2000 years later we do not fully appreciate just how radical the Beatitudes were. These first words out of Jesus’ mouth define—and immediately energize— the conflict between Jesus and established religious order.

It’s important to observe that Jesus is not advocating some sort of “secret society” religion. Instead, his followers—we ourselves included— are to be “the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (14) Jesus is not advocating only a life of inward awareness of who we are, but also a life of action and witness:  “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (16) To be sure, there is being, which are the qualities the Beatitudes set out as our foundation. But there is doing as well.

Psalm 7:1–9; Genesis 9; Matthew 4:12–25

Originally posted 1/8/2016—edited and updated 1/8/2018

Psalm 7:1–11: The author’s ostensible motivation for writing this psalm of supplication is a certain Cush the Benjaminite, who is mentioned only here in the BIble. Given the psalm’s somewhat military flavor, we presume he is writing about the period of conflict between David and Saul. Perhaps Cush was Saul’s ally.

Whoever he was, he was doubtless part of the army pursuing David after his break with Saul. Writing in David’s voice, our author makes it clear David’s straits are pretty desperate:
Rescue me from all my pursuers and save me.
Lest like a lion they tear up my life
rend me, with no one to save me. (2b,3)

David asserts his innocence by daring God to allow him be killed in battle if he has done any of the wrongs that his enemies are accusing him of:
Lord, my God, if I have done this,
if there be wrongdoing in my hands.
If I paid back my ally with evil,
if I oppressed my foes without reason–
may the enemy pursue and overtake me…” (4-6a).

To intensify his protest of innocence, he tells God he’s even willing to die for it:
…and trample to earth my life
and make my glory dwell in the dust.” (6b)

Having asserted his innocence by establishing his willingness to die if he has inadvertently wronged Cush, (we presume), he turns to God. Now, he basically demands divine justice (and probably retribution):
Rise up, O Lord, in Your anger,
Loom high against the wrath of my enemies.” (7)

What’s intriguing here is that by virtue of his righteousness, David believes God owes him justice: “Grant me justice, Lord, as befits my righteousness
and as befits my innocence that is in me.”(9)

Does this mean that we can pray to God and demand justice when we’ve been wronged? Needless to say, these sorts of prayers are made every day, I think it is perfectly acceptable to pray for justice, but Jesus changed the rules about praying for God to wreak vengeance on our enemies.

That said, our psalmist observes one very true thing about God to bear in mind whenever we pray: “He searches hearts and conscience,
God is righteous.” (10)

We may be able to deceive others and even deceive ourselves, but there is no lying to God.

Genesis 9: Now that Noah and his family have landed once again on dry earth, God establishes some basic rules. It is impossible to read this chapter without seeing it as the basis of God’s more elaborate Covenant established with Moses many centuries later. In some ways, it seems it is Noah’s rescue forecasts the rescue of Israel from Egypt and eventually from Babylon that establishes Israel as God’s most-favored nation.

The rules set by God are clear. First, God sets mankind at the top of the food chain: “The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.” (2) The only prohibition is eating the blood of any animal.

God uses the rainbow as a sign of this covenant, which seems so much more pleasant than the bloody sacrifices that will follow in the Temple. One wonders why God needs to be reminded of his promise, but then again, God seems to realize he erred in flooding the earth: “I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (16) But we must note that this covenant is  between God and the natural world, of which humankind is but a part.  …A covenant which humankind has pretty well trashed by its depredations against nature down through the centuries.

We then have a further demonstration that the Noah story is a major part of Israel’s national story. Noah plants a vineyard and over-samples its products. He gets drunk (although we can hardly blame him for all he has gone through.) “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father,” (22), who goes and tells his brothers who cover their naked father without looking. But Ham, having inadvertently seen his father’s nakedness receives only a curse for his troubles: “Cursed be Canaan;/ lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” (25) Which of course provides a handy justification for God’s subsequent commands to wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan when Israel re-enters the promised land with Joshua.

I hadn’t realized that at 950 years, Noah almost outlives Methuselah…

Matthew 4:12–25: Jesus departs Nazareth and begins his ministry at Capernaum by the sea of Galilee. Unlike Luke, Matthew skips right over the nasty business at the Nazareth synagogue where the membership tries to throw Jesus off a cliff for his apparent heresy. As is always the case with Matthew, Jesus’ every move has a direct connection to Scripture and there is no exception with regard to the location where Jesus begins his public ministry. His appearance in Capernaum,  is noted by Matthew as a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.” (14-16)

What I had not noticed before is that Jesus starts out by preaching exactly the same message as his mentor, John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (17)

Jesus, however, is certainly a more appealing character than his second cousin and his charisma is so strong is that all he has to do is say to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (19) They promptly abandon their livelihood for the uncertainty of becoming disciples of an as-yet unknown young preacher. Of course that turned out to be a world-changing decision for them–and for us.

It takes little time for Jesus’ fame to spread, and certainly healing the sick was a great attraction. But what’s different than John, is that Jesus’ fame spreads way beyond Israel and the Jews: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (25) This is Matthew’s subtle way of reminding the Jewish community to which he is writing that  Jesus came for everyone, for all humankind, not just the Jews.

Psalm 6; Genesis 7:11–8:22; Matthew 4:1–11

Originally posted 1/6/2016—edited and updated 1/6/2018

Psalm 6: This particular psalm of supplication begins with a pretty desperate plea:
Lord, do not chastise me in Your wrath,
Do not punish me in Your wrath” (2)

We learn why he’s pleading in the next verse:
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am wretched.
Heal me, for my limbs are stricken.” (3)

It appears he is suffering from some kind of disease and now “my life is hard stricken.” (4a) This is a reflection of the cultural assumption that illness was God’s punishment for some sin of which the sufferer was probably unaware. Not only punishment, but it seems to him that God has simply disappeared–and that absence sounds even more horrific than the disease itself as we read an even more desperate plea:
Come back, Lord, deliver my life,
rescue me for the sake of your kindness.” (5)

He then tries to use logic on God, suggesting that if he is allowed to die, he will be unable to worship:
For death holds no mention of You.
In Sheol who can acclaim you?” (6)

But then he breaks off that line of argument as we can almost hear him writhing in pain to the point of tears,. expressed with rather powerful dramatic effect:
I am weary in my sighing.
I take my bed swim every night,
with my tears I water my couch.” (7)

What up to now has been a strictly personal plea to God, our psalmist, speaking as David, turns toward accusing other people, as it appears his enemies are hounding him in his illness, or worse, they may be mocking him for his weakness:
Turn from me, all you wrongdoers,
for the Lord hears the sound of my weeping.” (9)

But as is always the case in a psalm of supplication, our psalmist realizes that God is indeed present and that God is listening. And his confidence and faith is strengthened in this realization as:
The Lord hears my plea,
the Lord will take my prayer.” (10)

And just to make sure his enemies receive their just desserts, he ends the psalm with a coda that wishes the same awful straits on his enemies as he is experiencing himself:
Let all my enemies be shamed and hard stricken,
let them turn back, be shamed in an instant.” (11)

In other words, “please catch the disease that I have and you’ll see just how bad this is.” Not exactly how Jesus told us to treat our enemies… Therefore it is probably better to read the second half of the psalm as an emotional outburst of pain and frustration rather than a theologically appropriate prayer to God.

Genesis 7:11–8:22: We encounter that Old Testament curiosity for the first time: a date whose details suggest the authors were intent on making it clear the event happened in actual history: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth.” (7:11) Substantial detail follows, especially in the naming Noah’s sons and telling us their wives, as well as Noah’s wife, accompanied by “every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature.” (7:14). Every creature remaining on earth dies and “Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.” (7:23).

Once again, there’s that sense that the authors want to create historic precision with specific time in a specific place: “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.” (8:4)  And then again, after the dove doesn’t return, “In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth.” (8:13)

Personally, I very much doubt the actual historicity of this wonderful story. As others have noted, there are flood legends older than this one throughout the Middle East, but only the Noah story speaks of a monotheistic God. In short, Israel adapted this story as foundational to its national identity. By giving it a specific time and place, we see the uniquely Jewish view (for that time) of a linear rather than cyclical sense of time and history—and that Godis not some remote mythical figure, but intervenes in actual space and time.

As we see so often in the OT, the Noah story all about the righteous remnant that is left. I’m sure that the Jews in exile in Babylon, who listened to this story felt that they, too, had been on an ark, removed from their homeland, but with the promise of return. Noah provides a burnt sacrifice (from those 7 pairs of clean animals?) “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind.” (8:21a) That sacrifice made in the open air of a renewed earth must have resonated with the exiled Jews who had seen their temple destroyed, but knew that God would indeed keep his promise to restore them to their land.

What’s odd, though, is the next statement: “for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” (8:21b). Did it really take this long for God to realize that given free will, mankind would always drift toward the wrong thing? One thing is sure: not one aspect about the human heart has changed throughout history. Absent God our inclination will always be “evil from our youth.”

Matthew 4:1–11: As Noah was in a wilderness of water, Jesus is led “by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (1) Matthew makes it clear that there was only one reason for Jesus going to the wilderness. It’s not for reflection or meditation; it’s to be tested. One would imagine that after 40 days of fasting, Jesus was in a substantially weakened  state, so his ability to resist the wiles of Satan’s temptation is all the more impressive.

So why is the temptation story even in the gospels? The threefold temptation makes it clear that while Jesus is indeed God and could easily do any of the things the devil tempts him with, Matthew’s readers–including us– will understand that Jesus is firmly committed to being human, (his later miracles notwithstanding). This is  one of those places where we understand that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human.

As is his wont, Matthew uses scriptural quotations to serve as Jesus’ answer each of the three questions, once again demonstrating to his readers that Jesus is the messianic fulfillment of what the prophets had foretold. What’s interesting of course is that the devil also quotes Scripture at the second temptation:
He will command his angels concerning you,
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (6) 

That Satan knows scripture is  worth remembering when we hear various TV preachers using Scripture to advance their own personal agenda. I’m talking about you, Creflo Dollar, Ken Copeland, and your ilk.

Jesus resists the temptations and in Matthew’s assertion that Jesus has power over evil, he dismisses Satan with a theological wave of his hand:
Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

         ‘Worship the Lord your God,
            and serve only him.’” (10)

The verse that concludes the story, “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (11) is crucial to make it clear that Jesus has nothing to do with the devil who has left him. Even though he will be accused of demonic powers during his ministry by his enemies, we know that Jesus’ encounter with Satan occurred just this one time and that the angels are his servants, making the separation even clearer. Matthew is telling us that whatever Jesus does going forward is of God and God alone.

 

 

Psalm 5; Genesis 6:1–7:10; Matthew 3

Originally posted 1/5/2016—edited and updated 1/5/2018

Psalm 5: This psalm of supplication begins with the usual formula:
Hearken to my speech, O Lord,
attend to my utterance.” (2)

Then   a little more directness, perhaps even a tinge of annoyance as the psalmist commands, “Listen well to my voice crying out, my king and my God,
for to you I pray.” (3).

And he believes God is listening, evoking an image of giving testimony in the courtroom before God the judge:
Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
    in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.” (4)

He reminds God that God does not tolerate being around wicked people:
For not a God desiring wickedness are You,
no evil will sojourn by You.” (5)

And then, right to the point, “You hate all the wrongdoers.” (6b).

However, God doesn’t just hate evildoers, he annihilates them:
You destroy those who speak lies;
    the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.” (7)

By contrast, perhaps to reassure himself, the psalmist reminds God of his faithfulness in worship:
As for me–through Your great kindness I enter Your house,
I bow to Your holy temple in the fear of You.” (8)

Now that he has firmly established that he is religious and faithful and on God’s side, our psalmist finally comes to the problem at hand. He is apparently being slandered by his foes. Since the psalmist is speaking in the voice of David, we can assume this has to do with court intrigue using the striking metaphor of a liar’s throat being an “open grave:”
For there is nothing right in their mouths,
within them–falsehood,
an open grave their throat, their tongue, smooth talking.” (10).

Our psalmist’s supplication is direct and to the point:
Condemn them, O God.
Let them fall by their counsels for their many sins.
Cast them off, for they have rebelled against You.” (11)

This psalm addresses one of the major themes of Psalms: the evil created by speech. In that preliterate society, words were even more freighted than they are now. A man’s character was revealed by how he spoke. Truth was the all-important social currency and deceit through words was seen as a sin against God, perhaps even blasphemy. We also see that human nature and its tendency to lie has not changed one whit in three millennia.

In praying for his enemies destruction, this psalm also raises the contradiction to what Jesus said: that we are to love our enemies. Thus, I think under the terms of the New Covenant, we should read this prayer for interest but definitely not as an example of how to pray in Jesus’ name.

Genesis 6:1–7:10: Things do not go according to God’s plan as the human race multiplies. There seems to have been regular intercourse between women and the “Sons of God,” whom I presume were angels and these couples bore super-human creatures, the Nephilim, who “were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” (6:4)

I take these long-lived “heroes” to be Jewish parallels to the mythic figures that populated the in stories of neighboring kingdoms such as Mesopotamia. In any event, God puts an end to this practice and our author observes that human lifespans are now limited to 120 years. But even without the sons of God around, humans are still fully capable of great evil and God declares, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (6:7). This certainly raises a question about God’s character. Does God, being God, really regret his actions?  In any event, God’s noble intentions for man to follow him and do good seems to have taken root in only one man: Noah.

I should note here that I do not believe there was a historical Noah, just as I believe there was no historical Adam and Eve. Rather, I see these first chapters are the grand national myth of Israel’s origins. As we read further, we will see how Israel’s God is quite different than the small-g gods that populated the national stories elsewhere in the Middle East at the time Genesis was written. For example, there are flood stories in the myths of many other civilizations, and I believe we need to read Noah’s story as a metaphor for how God rescues us through faith.

God speaks to Noah and he obeys by building the ark and engaging in his great zoological enterprise. What I had not noticed before is that in chapter 6, God resolves to destroy living thing: “people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air,” (6:7). But now God apparently relents and decides that since there is one honest man, he will spare the animals and focus his destructive powers on wicked humans.

We see the Jewish spin on this story is that God commands Noah to take seven pairs of clean animals, i.e, the animals that were worthy of sacrifice in the Temple, while only one pair of unclean animals was allowed on board.

The week that Noah was on board the ark and it doesn’t start raining must have been an extraordinary test of his faith. I can certainly hear his family complaining about his stupidity and willingness to follow this unfaithful God. But one week later, flood comes.

Righteousness is preserved while wickedness is destroyed. The ark is certainly a metaphor for the remnant of Judah and Israel that God kept rescuing in the latter days of the kingdom before the Babylonian captivity. And of course for us Christians, it’s a metaphor for our salvation through baptism. Water keeps showing up as a central element of our faith.

Matthew 3: Once settled in Nazareth, Jesus and his family disappear from the scene. Matthew’s second act opens with John the Baptist and as his wont, our gospel writer provides a proof text, this time from Isaiah:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’” (2)

Here, Matthew also sets up the central conflict of his gospel between Jesus’ radical words and the religious establishment as John “saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (7)

We hear the famous apocalyptic words that John hurls at the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (10)  Unfortunately, Matthew does not give us a clue as to how the official responded to John’s accusation.

John tells the crowd that the one to come “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (11). With these words, Matthew has laid out the arc of his story, and the adult Jesus enters the stage of the story. At first John resists baptising Jesus as Matthew informs us that John knows exactly who Jesus is: the long-promised Messiah as he says humbly, ““I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (14)

Jesus responds calmly, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” (15) reminding John that the Messiah will arise out of righteousness, not out of power. (A hint of things to come!) John relents and baptizes Jesus. The dove descends and the voice from heaven intones, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (17) Right here at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry we have a confluence of the Trinity: the dove, representing the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and God himself speaking from heaven. Even this early in the game, Matthew is making sure that we see–and attempt to comprehend– the simultaneous the divinity and the humanity of Jesus.

Psalm 4; Genesis 5; Matthew 2:13–23

Originally posted 1/4/2016—edited and updated 1/4/2018

Psalm 4: We know this is a psalm of supplication straight away: “When I call out, answer me, my righteous God.” (2a). And to make sure God “gets” this, the psalmist reminds God of past answers: “In the straits, You set me free.” And now in my desperate situation, “Have mercy upon me and hear my prayer.” (2b)

A psalm of supplication always comes from one who knows and trusts God already, and there is always a contrast with those who lack this faith: “Sons of man,…You love vain things and seek out lies.” (3). But the faithful know that they are different and special: “But know that the Lord set apart His faithful.” (4a) And in this psalm, there is the confident assurance that God will listen: “The Lord will hear when I call to Him.” (4b)

The thrust of the psalm then shifts from personal supplication to giving advice to others. If they are in rough straits, they should find a quiet place and “Speak [to God] in your hearts on your beds, and be still.” (5). The part about remaining still is perhaps the hardest—at least for me. How often do I pray to God for help and then promptly head off and try to solve the problem myself?

In fact, the psalmist suggests, we shoul pray and then perform religious (or righteous) acts with faithful confidence: “Offer righteous sacrifices/ and trust in the Lord.” (6) We should have confidence even in the face of cynicism by others that God will remain resolutely silent: “Many say, ‘Who will show us good things?‘” (7) But our trust allows us to respond confidently: “You [God] put joy in my heart.” (8) It is in this assurance of God’s succor we are rescued from the anxieties of the day and restored in sleep:
In peace, all whole, let me lie down and sleep,
For You, Lord, alone, do set me down safely.
” (9)

Would that I can have this ongoing daily assurance that comes from trusting God. This psalm reminds us that we find inner peace and escape from anxiety by trusting not only that God will hear us, but that he will answer and that his answer will bring us peace, even in the face of the cynical doubts of those who reject even the idea of God, much less that God is listening and will act.

Genesis 5: This chapter of genealogy from Adam to Noah reflects the crucial importance of ancestors to the writers of Genesis. We have observed elsewhere that Jews did not believe in an afterlife, and it is only through their progeny that elders would be remembered. There is also a mathematical precision in listing the age of each forebear that reinforces the memory and importance of each person in the line— not to mention that people appeared to live far longer in the antediluvian world. There is nothing like a genealogy to preserve that crucial memory.

In a certain way, knowing one’s forebears defines us in a way that we tend to ignore willfully in modern culture: that our personality and even physical being is the result of hundreds of generations before we appeared on earth. We prefer to see ourselves as autonomous beings, wholly in control of our destiny, independent of any persons or influences that came before us.

This deepening awareness of one’s ancestors is growing now that with the mapping of the human genome and DNA testing. I think our current generation is becoming increasingly  cognizant of our roots and strengthening our appreciation of our parents, grandparents, and their forebears—and that they had a significant role in the persons we’ve become. We should appreciate this at least as much as the writers of Genesis who so carefully preserved these lists of their forebears. Even so, we still persist in this sense that our roots have no effect on who we are and what we do–and what we believe. But the reality is we are in many ways captive to our ancestry and are really much less independent than we like to believe.

This chapter (and others like it in the OT) is also surely Matthew’s model for listing the genealogy of Jesus.

Some have argued that if Adam and Eve were the first people how could they have populated the earth? One suggestion that’s been put forth by theologian Peter Enns is that Adam is not the first human, but for the writers of Genesis, Adam is the root of Jewish race, rather than the root of all mankind, what Enns calls, “Proto-Isreal.”  This is an interesting idea that would help clear up some of the confusion that surrounds these early chapters of Genesis—and especially the temptation to believe—as many still do—that the this genealogy in Genesis determines that the earth to be only some 6000 years old

Matthew 2:13–23: This is the part of the Infancy Narrative–the Christmas story–that is told only in Matthew and that we tend to ignore. Joseph takes the Holy Family to Egypt to ensure Jesus is not killed as a result of Herod’s wrath. As Matthew does again and again, he cites specifically how a particular action or circumstance fulfills Scripture. He cites Hosea with regard to the escape to Egypt by stating, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (15)  And in Herod’s cruel act, he quotes Jeremiah, “Rachel weeping for her children;/she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (18b)

Once Herod is dead, Joseph has yet another dream of an angel telling him it is safe to return. The angel says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” (20).

In the Escape to Egypt, this family reenacts the central story of the Jewish race. As in the final night in Egypt, the Passover, the life of Joseph’s eldest son, Jesus is spared. And in returning to Israel from Egypt, the Holy Family reenacts the long journey of Israel from Egypt back into the promised land. I think Matthew’s intention is to demonstrate this parallel to Israel’s national story, which would not be lost on his Jewish listeners/ readers, as yet another proof that further substantiates Matthew’s assertion of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

However, the family does not return to Judea, but heads to Nazareth in Galilee, which is the area where Jesus conducted the majority of his ministry. Here, Luke and Matthew diverge in their accounts. The clear implication here is that Mary and Joseph lived in or near Bethlehem to begin with when Jesus was born. Matthew records no perilous journey and no manger–only the visit of the wise men about two years after Jesus’ birth.

For Luke, Mary and Joseph start out as refugees trying to find a place to stay in Bethlehem. But for Matthew, it is only now, some years later, that they’ve become refugees, immigrating to a land and a town they’d never lived in. Of course, for Matthew this fact is simply more proof of Jesus’ bona fides as the true Messiah: “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.’” (23)

Psalm 3; Genesis 3,4; Matthew 2:1–12

Originally posted 1/3/2016—edited and updated 1/3/2018

Psalm 3: Although the psalmist asserts this is a “David psalm, when he fled from Absalom his son,” [This event occurred when Absalom attempted to usurp the throne (2 Samuel 16)] Alter suggests that these ascriptions have no historical authority and that the psalm generally refers to any person in trouble. However, I prefer to go with tradition and even though David doubtless did not write the psalm, it is helpful to have it connected to a real person and event because it makes the psalm all the more emotionally deep and perosnally impactful to think that we will experience trials that will make us feel the same way David did.

This is a psalm that can be uttered by any person who finds himself in trouble and pauses to remember that he is not alone after all but is protected by God. This assurance is expressed in the wonderful metaphor:
And You, Lord, are a shield for me,
my glory, Who lifts up my head.” (4).

The image of God lifting up the head of a broken man on his knees, his head bowed not in prayer but in despair is powerful. Unlike many other psalms of supplication, where God seems to be absent, here the psalmist exudes assurance that God is nearby, listening, and will answer:
With my voice I cry out to the Lord,
and He answers me from His holy mountain.” (5)

Even though his situation is desperate and he is surrounded by the enemy, David’s trust in God brings so much peace in this time of enormous distress that David is able to lie down and sleep so that when
I awake, [I realize that] the Lord has sustained me.
I fear not from myriads of troops

that round about set against me.” (7).

David is fully assured that God will “strike all my foes on the cheek.” (8a) because “Rescue is the Lord’s.” (9a)

The question for me of course is will I have the same faith and trust in God to deal with some situation where I am desperate trouble. Will I rely on God because “Rescue is the Lord’s?” David was able to pray and then lie down and go to sleep, rising in the morning knowing he is protected by God. Could I go to sleep knowing God is my shield, or would I try to control the situation myself and attempt to resolve the trouble on my own? I know myself well enough that control tends to be my first instinct rather than following David’s example.

Genesis 3,4: Following the wonderful story of creation of man and woman, it does not take long for paradise to be lost. What strikes me in the temptation story is that the serpent does not lie but tells the absolute truth. Eating the fruit of the tree does not kill them as God had warned, but it provides exactly what the serpent says it will: “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (3:4) This desire to be like God and control our own destiny was innate at creation because I think we were created imago deo, in the image of God and thus possessed free will. In short, the potential for sin was built into our very being. Otherwise, there would have been no temptation and the desire before eating the fruit to “make one wise,” (3:6).

Notice that Adam is not off in some other part of the garden, but is standing right next to the woman and that “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” (3:6) The man succumbed to exactly the same temptation as the woman. I think we have blamed Eve far too harshly. She may have taken the initiative to eat the fruit, but Adam, who knew the same thing as Eve about the tree, ate readily. Men and women truly are equal partners in the capacity to sin.

Immediately following the sin of succumbing to temptation comes the sin of trying to shift the blame. Again, both are equal partners as the man attempts to shift the blame to the woman, who in turn attempts to shift the blame to the serpent.  Every human has this built-in ability to blame the other person [“she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate“] or blame the whole thing on an outside circumstance [“The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”] (3:12, 13)

Thus it continues down to today. The core of our innate sinfulness is to ignore God, succumb to temptation, and then try to shift blame. The manifest motivations of human nature express themselves immediately; they are built in. Watch any three-year old child who has done something wrong do exactly what the man and woman did.

One of the great mysteries to me in the story of Cain and Abel is why God preferred the blood sacrifice to Cain’s offering of “the fruit of the ground.” (4:3)  Although we certainly see the preeminence of blood sacrifice later in Genesis and among the Israelites soon enough. I believe this story is not history, but one of the foundational myths of the national origin of Israel. It is stating that from the outset God prefers animal sacrifice to the passivity of laying fruit down at the altar. Moreover, God does not have to explain his preference; it simply is what it is.

Cain murders Abel . Like his parents, he makes excuses when confronted by God: “He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9) His punishment  for fratricide is to become “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (4:14) but marked by God, he cannot not be killed. Like Cain, Israel has wandered. From Egypt to Canaan and then wandered from God leading to exile. Israel is doomed to wander and like Cain, the wandering, including into exile in Babylon when this book was probably compiled, is never extinguished.

Civilization arrives as Cain builds a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. In short, the great conflict between the urban and agrarian comes early in human history. Cain is the father of Enoch who is the great grandfather of Lemech whose sons explain the origin of the essential elements of ancient civilization: Jabal, the “the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock.” (4:20) is also “the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” (4:21) Tubal-cain, “who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.” (4:22) Thus the beginnings of the iron and bronze ages.

We tend to think of ancient civilization as being nomadic and agrarian, but cities have also always been part of our history. As we shall see, cities are both glorious and corrupt: expressing the very essence of humankind who built them.

A little discussed passage is at the end of this chapter: “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.” (4:25) Seth’s has a son Enosh. Our authors note, “At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.” (4:26) I guess we can look to Adm and Eve’s grandson as the progenitor of the monotheistic religion that eventually became Judaism and then Christianity.

Matthew 2:1–12: Man has been looking up to the heavens for direction, wisdom, and omens since the dawn of civilization. The wise men follow the star, which some theorize was a comet, to Jerusalem, to seek out this new king. They are informed by the court prophets that they really need to go to Bethlehem, just five miles away.

Herod asks them to tell him when they find the child, although we also know Herod has darker lans than the three kings. The star leads them there and then stops “over the place where the child was.” (9b) [And it’s a house, not a stable, indicating the wise men arrived some time after the actual birth of Jesus.] What I hadn’t noticed before is that “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (10). They are joyous because they know they have reached their destination and know they have found what they are looking for. They are overjoyed even before they lay eyes on Jesus. The star that stopped is their source of joy.

This is Matthew’s clear sign to his readers and listeners that we are all like the wandering wise men seeking a new king. The star is not only real but it is also a metaphor for entire thrust and drive of history—and it stops in Bethlehem. Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection is the earth-shattering event that has altered history and taken it in a completely new and unexpected direction. From our perspective some 2000 years later, there is no question that the Incarnation has truly been the hinge of history. Would civilization even have survived without the interruption of the birth of Jesus?

No wonder the wise men brought their treasures and paid homage to the little child. They became the first worshippers at Jesus’ feet. They understood that the world had indeed changed for good—in both senses of the word.

Psalm 2; Genesis 2:4–25; Matthew 1:18–25

Psalm 2: This second psalm establishes a second major theme we see in in this book: a threat to Israel, its political leadership and military might, and the fact that despite many trials and setbacks, victory will ultimately occur because God is on Israel’s side. The poem opens with an existential threat:
“Why are the nations aroused,
and the peoples murmur vain things?
Kings of the earth take their stand,
and princes conspire together.” (1,2a)

Worse, these enemies conspire “against the Lord and against His anointed.” (2b). The “anointed” one being Israel’s king.

But the powers of earth are no match for God:
“He who dwells in the heavens will laugh,
the Master derides them.”
God “will speak to them in His wrath,”  (4,5)

…and announces that the king of Israel has been chosen by God himself:
And I — I appointed My king
on Zion, My holy mountain.” (6).

Now the king speaks,
He [God] said to me: ‘You are my son.
I myself did beget you.’” (7)

At first glance this appears to be a clear Christological reference to God sending his Son to earth. And it may be. However, Alter points out that it was common throughout the Middle East to believe that all kings were in essence the son of a god [e.g. Egypt], or in this case, the God. The king, continuing to tell the people what God said, announces,
Ask of me, and I shall give nations as your estate,
…You will smash them with a rod of iron,
like a potter’s jar you will dash them.” (8a, 9)

And then one final statement–almost a taunt:
And now, O kings, pay mind,
be chastened, you rulers of the earth.” (10)

When we consider that Israel, even at its mightiest under David and Solomon, was really quite a small kingdom compared to others around them such as Egypt, this psalm almost seems to veer into braggadocio. But such was Israel’s faith in its singular God that it was assured God would bring victory. And as we know, belief is a strong motivator. There’s little question that soldiers standing before the king and hearing this speech would head to battle charged up and motivated to slay the enemy and to win.

This may not be the most sophisticated description of who God is, but there’s no question that God did indeed bring many victories that in the eyes of other larger nations were improbable. And I suggest that even today, Israel, a country the size of Massachusetts connotes–and delivers–power and influence beyond its size.

Genesis 2:4–25: This second creation story couldn’t be more different than the first. The author of this second account seems far less interested in grand cosmology and more in the agricultural aspects of nature: In the day that the Lord  God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up.” (4,5) We shouldn’t be surprised that in the parched Mideast the author views water as the key to creation: “a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground.” (6). Once there is land and water, God puts these elements to good use, creating man ahead of all other living creatures, “man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (7). To underscore the agrarian nature of this story, man is planted in the most perfect of natural places: Eden, which is the source of the rivers–more water!

Man’s purpose in this garden is not just to stroll and enjoy it, but to work the land, which of course is how civilization began: “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (15). The warning not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge comprises God’s first words to his new creation. What’s fascinating here is that only after man is created does God turn to other creative activities, forming “every animal of the field and every bird of the air.” (19). Man’s position as God’s preeminent living creation is demonstrated in his dominion over nature by God’s action in bringing animals and birds to the man and asks the man to name them.

God creates woman out of the man’s rib “and brought her to the man.,” who responds with the first poem in the Bible and he names her, “This at last is bone of my bones/ and flesh of my flesh;/this one shall be called Woman,/  for out of Man this one was taken.” (23) What’s fascinating is that God could have created the female sex ex nihilo, but instead uses a piece of man’s anatomy. I think the author is reminding us that man and woman are meant to be in close relationship with each other—and that each sex balances the other in the natural order of things. 

We then encounter what I take to be an editorial comment by the author, who observes, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (24) Which of course is the initiation of the sexual act. But it is sex and a relationship that does not know shame: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” Perhaps it is the absence of shame that best defines the Edenic existence before the fall.

Matthew 1:18–25: Matthew’s nativity story is a lot different than Luke’s. No Annunciation, no Elizabeth, no Magnificat, no journey to Bethlehem, no manger, no shepherds. Just the dry facts as Matthew speaks more of Joseph than Mary. We learn about the virgin birth via Joseph’s dream.

Matthew is writing to a patriarchal Jewish audience and it is the male line that matters. This audience also knows its scripture and we encounter the first of many OT quotes that the gospel writer uses to prove his case that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He quotes the famous passage from Isaiah: “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,/ and they shall name him Emmanuel,” (23) This weaving of OT scripture and reportage of the facts about Jesus’ life is Matthew’s method of making the case to his Jewish listeners that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.

We also learn that Joseph is obedient, “He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.” (24). And to make sure his audience understands that Jesus is no ordinary child conceived in the ordinary way, Matthew informs us that Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (25).

For Matthew, beyond the details of Mary conceiving by the Holy Spirit and Joseph obeying God, Matthew’s interest is not so much in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth itself, but in the weighty events that follow.

Psalm 149,150; Malachi 2–4; Revelation 22:8–21

After two years and more than 1000 posts, we arrive at the end of it all…

Psalm 149,150: I commend the brilliance of the editors who compiled Psalms to end this book that describes every human feeling; that contains every cry to God for rescue; every complaint about a too-silent God; and which again and again celebrates God as Creator of all nature and above all as Creator of humankind.

We also encounter the underlying theme of the entire Old Testament: God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the lowly—and his anger at those who ignore them. But above all else, we see how to worship God—and that is the theme of these final two psalms.

Over and over, the verses of these two psalms express an all-encompassing joy:
“Hallelujah!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
His praise in the faithful’s assembly.”  (149:1)

Let them praise His name in dance,
on the timbrel and lyre let them hymn to Him.” (149:3)

Let the faithful delight in glory,
sing gladly on their couches.” (149:5)

But in this psalm there lurks a darker note of triumphalism:
For the Lord looks with favor on His people,
he adorns the lowly with victory.
[…]
Exultations of God in their throat,
and a double-edged sword in their hand,
to wreak vengeance upon the nations,
punishment on the peoples,
to bind kings in fetters,
and their nobles in iron chains,
to extract from them justice as written–
it is grandeur for all His faithful.” (149:6-8)

Israel was God’s chosen people and they clearly are celebrating a military victory of some kind. Or more eschatologically, perhaps they are celebrating a victory at the end of history. To me, these final verses read like a condensation of the end of Revelation. After many great trials and persecution, the people of God are finally victorious.

Psalm 150, on the other hand, is untrammeled joy and is a fitting conclusion to all that has gone before. In the end, it’s all about praising God. “Praise” is repeated eleven times in the six short verses—leaving little doubt as to our highest obligation before God:
Hallelujah.
Praise God in His holy place,
praise Him in the vault of His power.
Praise Him for His mighty acts,
praise Him as befits His abounding greatness.
Praise Him with the ram-horn’s blast,
praise Him with the lute and the lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dance,
praise Him with strings and flute.
Praise Him with sounding cymbals,
praise Him with crashing cymbals.
Let all that has breath praise Yah.
Hallelujah!

In the end, we do not come before God with our theological insights or deep commentary. We come before God in joyful worship. If we take nothing else away from reading and pondering these 150 psalms, we must take that.

Hallelujah!

Malachi 2–4: Perhaps by this time the people who compiled the Moravian redaings came to realize that there is a great deal of repetitiveness in the minor prophets. Malachi sounds like those prophets who preceded him as he rehearses the usual themes.

1. God is angry at the desertion of the people and their preference to worship idols and there will be punishment. Malachi gives us a memorable metaphor: “I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings,” (2:3)

2. God’s anger is primarily directed at the religious and political leaders who have led the people astray: “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi.” (2:7, 8)

3. The priests and leaders are first order hypocrites: “You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. ” (2:13)

4. Then, a theme we haven’t encountered before: the duty to remain faithful to one’s wife: “So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord…. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.” (2:15)

5. Then, there is the messianic section. Here, it is a prediction of a messenger coming to prepare Israel for God’s arrival: “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” (3:1) We certainly witness this in the role of John the Baptist as the messenger and the appearance of Jesus at the temple.

6. God will judge and punish those who have ignored the needs of the poor: “I will draw near to you for judgment; … against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me.” (3:5) We have seen this command over and over in reading the Old Testament and the Psalms. I think God is trying to get our attention about this.

7. At the end of history, the “Day of the Lord,” those who have remained faithful to God will receive their just reward: “on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” (3:17, 18)

The final chapter of the Old Testament bears striking resemblance to the last chapters of Revelation. At the end of history the wicked will be punished and fire will be involved: “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” (4:1)

But those who fear God will be saved: “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (4:2) The righteous will finally triumph over evil: “you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet.” (4:3) This is a day we are still waiting for.

Malachi has one final admonition to his audience: “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” (4:4)

The Old Testament ends on a promise: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (4:5,6) No wonder some people thought Jesus was Elijah returning to earth.

But as we know, God had a far greater surprise in store when he sent his son some 400 years after this last prophet speaks his final words.

Revelation 22:8–21: His visions complete at last, these final verses are John’s epilogue and benediction. Once again, John attempts to worship the angel who brought these visions to him. But the angel demurs: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (9) Here at the very end we learn that angels are our fellow servants. And based on our readings in the Old Testament, we can certainly agree that John speaks in a prophetic voice. The angel has it right when he says, “you and your comrades the prophets.” And just as the final psalm ends on our highest calling—to worship God—so too, this book with the angel’s imperative, “Worship God!

As long as Jesus has not returned, the same old bifurcation will continue to exist on earth as the angel reminds John and us, “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” (11) In the midst of evil, we, who consider ourselves to be righteous, are commanded to do the right thing and to always remember that there is still holiness in this broken, fallen world. And we must ourselves remain holy.

Suddenly, a new voice breaks in: See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (12, 13) It is Jesus who has the last spoken words in the Bible: It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (16, 17)

It is Jesus’ invitation to each and everyone of us. Jesus is the healer, the water of life that we receive through baptism. And his invitation still stands some two millennia later to all who will simply listen and respond. As John stated much earlier in this book, Jesus is already standing just outside the door of our heart. The eternal question hangs in the air: will we invite him in?

John’s Revelation concludes with the author’s warning: “ I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (18, 19) I think John knew instinctively that his visions would stir endless debate. Which they surely have. But just think how boring this last book would have been if it didn’t stir controversy and confusion.

But there is nothing confusing about the penultimate verse as Jesus says, “The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” (20) To which John and we can only reply, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

And so we wait.

Sola Deo Gloria.

 

 

 

 

 

Psalm 148:7–14; Zechariah 13:7–14:21; Malachi 1; Revelation 21:9–22:7

The Moravians are really piling on the reading here at the end of the year. Somebody must have miscalculated here…

Psalm 148:7–14: The conclusion of this psalm is a masterful catalog of living things as well as what we think of as inanimate objects that begins in the deepest parts of the ocean and ascends to humankind from high rank to low—all of whom praise God—in one of the longest sentences in the Psalms:
Praise the Lord from the earth,
sea monsters and all you deeps.
Fire and hail, snow and smoke
stormwind that performs His command,
The mountains and all the hills,
fruit trees and all the cedars,
wild beasts and all the cattle,
crawling things and winged birds,
kings of earth and all the nations,
princes and all leaders of earth,
young men and also maidens,
elders together with lads.” (7-12)

We self-centered humans tend to think that we alone are God’s creation and that all nature  is more or less a byproduct that exists solely to serve our needs. But here it’s clear that all of God’s creation stands on an equal footing before him. The strong implication to me is that while we may be God’s highest creation, we should reverently stand in respect for the entire natural world. Reflecting on the magnificence of all creation is what leads naturally to worship as we together with all of nature praise him. Which is exactly what our psalmist goes on to say:
Let them praise the Lord’s name,
for His name alone is exalted.
His grandeur is over earth and the heavens.” (13)

The psalm concludes with a reminder that Israel is God’s chosen people and they would do well to follow—and to praise—God:
And may He raise up a horn for His people,
raise of all His faithful,
of the Israelites, the people near Him.
Hallelujah!” (14)

When I am out in nature doing photography, I can admire the grandeur of what God has created from the tiniest flower to the mountains of Zion. It is then this that psalm reminds me that we humans are but one almost insignificant part of God’s glorious creation.

Zechariah 13:7–14:21: As this book continues its oscillation between God’s promises and the consequences of God’s anger, Here, we encounter an oracle that brims with anger at the shepherd, who is probably an unfaithful king—of which Judah had many.  At some point two-thirds of Judah will perish and the reminder will be put to a severe test to see who remains faithful:
And I will put this third into the fire,
    refine them as one refines silver,
    and test them as gold is tested.
They will call on my name,
    and I will answer them.
I will say, “They are my people”;
    and they will say, “The Lord is our God.” (13:9)

Happily, they appear to pass the test.

The final chapter is a John-like vision of the end times. I’m pretty sure John was familiar with this passage since there are parallels of battle and the creation of a new Jerusalem. First, Jerusalem is destroyed with God’s permission. But “Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.” (14:3) Something similar John’s new Jerusalem is reestablished under God’s direct rule: “On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem…it shall continue in summer as in winter. And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.” (14:8, 9)

We even have a hint of what John turns into a floating city that descends to earth: “But Jerusalem shall remain aloft on its site from the Gate of Benjamin to the place of the former gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the king’s wine presses.” (14:10) And it will become an eternal city: “it shall be inhabited, for never again shall it be doomed to destruction; Jerusalem shall abide in security.” (11)

Zechariah then foretells more bad stuff which I will skip over. Eventually, all the nations will come to worship God. But I have to admit to the feeling that Zechariah’s scroll got messed up somewhere along the way and try as they might, his editors never really straightened things out. The book ends rather confusingly and abruptly with “And there shall no longer be traders[j]in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”(14:21), which certainly brings Jesus’ cleansing of the temple to mind. Or not…

Malachi 1: Our prophet opens by making it clear that the descendants of Esau, who I take to be the Edomites, are not as well-loved as the descendants of Jacob, i.e. Israel. In fact, they’re pretty much cursed by God: “If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says: They may build, but I will tear down, until they are called the wicked country, the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.” (4) Wow. No hope there. Malachi drops the subject and moves on…

Like other prophets before him, Malachi chastises the corrupt priesthood: “You say, “How have we despised your name?” By offering polluted food on my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised.” (6, 7)

Like all the other prophets, Malachi writes in the voice of God. And his take makes God something of a complainer: “Oh, that someone among you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hands.” (10)

God points out that “my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering” (11) so the obvious conclusion is that Israel would offer God only the best. But instead, he accuses them, ” you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it  may be despised. ” (12)

God points out that the priests are complaining about having to make sacrifices: “What a weariness this is,” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts.” (13a) and then in disobedience to the Law, they cheat by offering blemished and inferior animals for sacrifice, keeping the good stuff for themselves. He reminds them, “for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations.” (14) The chapter ends with the feeling that bad things are about to happen.

Revelation 21:9–22:7: Never one to leave well enough alone, John spends the rest of the chapter describing the new Jerusalem. His description is reminiscent of the temple measurements in the concluding chapters of Ezekiel. Like everything else in this book, John’s vision is that Jews and Christians together worship God. The new jerusalem has twelve gates, “and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites;” (21:12) And it has twelve foundations, “and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (21:14). We presume that Judas’s name is not among the twelve.

The new Jerusalem is quite big: a cube 1500 miles on a side. What’s really intriguing is John’s lapidary catalog, which includes jasper, transparent gold, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, carnelian, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, amethyst, and pearls.

Logically enough, this Jerusalem has no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (21:22) The sun and moon are not required since the city is lit by God’s glory and “its lamp is the Lamb.” (21:23) Finally,  its inhabitants are the faithful (the wicked having been already tossed into the sea of fire), and “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (21:27)

As if this weren’t enough, John goes on to describe the river of life, “bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (22:1, 2) lined by 12 fruit trees, whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations.” (22:3) 

John’s lengthy description ends with the famous words, “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (22:5) Which I have to admit is a pretty great promise. Darkness has been banished.

John then reminds his readers of his bonafides as the angel tells him,“These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” (22:6) In other words, John asserts, he’s an eyewitness and he has not made these visions up. One really wants to believe him; the imaginative scope of this book is unlike anything else in the Bible—or in literature as a whole.

Psalm 148:1–6; Zechariah 12–13:6; Revelation 20:11–21:8

Psalm 148:1–6: This majestic psalm of praise celebrates God and God’s creation. It begins in heaven itself as we get a glimpse of just who is there:
Hallelujah.
Praise the Lord from the heavens,
praise Him on the heights.
Praise Him, all His messengers,
praise Him, all His armies.” (1, 2)

Here’ messengers are obviously angels, but the paintings and popular conception to the contrary, I doubt they are winged and haloed beings. Somewhere in the Bible there’s a verse about us having “entertained angels unawares,” i.e. they look like us. Remember that Abraham and Sarah entertained three angelic beings that looked just like them. And I guessing that God’s armies are populated by those fearsome looking seraphim with multiple wings and lion faces.

Our psalmist turns to creation, effectively paralleling the Genesis account. But here it is not just that God has brought creation into being, but that creation itself worships God. The psalmist begins with God’s physical creation above our heads:
Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.
Praise Him, utmost heavens,
and the waters above the heavens.”  (3, 4)

I presume the “waters above the heavens” refers to rain. I think the phrase “above the heavens”  refers simply to the sky above.  All these seemingly inanimate objects exist for the same reason we humans do: they—and we— were created to praise and worship God:
Let them praise the Lord’s name,
for He commanded, and they were created.
And He made them stand forever, for all time.
And he set them a border that could not be crossed.” (5, 6)

So, what is this border? I think it’s the boundary between God’s visible creation, which includes what’s above are heads and Heaven itself, which we cannot see in the same way as God’s created heavenly bodies. Of course John’s Revelation attempts crosses this border in its almost hallucinatory effort describe the fundamentally indescribable. I prefer our psalmist’s statement that there os a border between God’s physical creation and Heaven, and leave it at that.

Zechariah 12–13:6: One wonders if this book will ever end…  Zechariah continues with his vision of a great army arrayed outside Jerusalem—effectively the same image as John who describes Satan’s armies preparing for battle outside the new Jerusalem: “And all the nations of the earth shall come together against it. On that day, says the Lord, I will strike every horse with panic, and its rider with madness.” (12:3, 4)

Zechariah writes that Judah will be triumphant in this battle and will “devour to the right and to the left all the surrounding peoples, while Jerusalem shall again be inhabited in its place, in Jerusalem.” (12:6) Very good things will then happen to the people of Judah, who must have been hanging on Zechariah’s every word at this point: “On that day the Lord will shield the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the Lord, at their head.” (12:8) Wow. Zechariah seems to be getting carried away when he starts comparing the house of David to God.

Or is he? There is indeed someone from the house of David who is in fact God: Jesus Christ. And in the section that follows, it appears that the people of Judah have executed their messiah: “I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one  whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (12:10)

That Jesus was pierced with a sword while on the cross is certainly suggestive here. However, there was certainly no compassion expressed by the inhabitants of Jerusalem before the cross, as Zechariah describes a woeful mourning by all: “The land shall mourn, each family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves;” (12;12)

Chapter 13 opens with what seems to be a clear reference to repentance and baptism occuring on the Day of the Lord: “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” (13:1)

Zechariah describes a general cleansing: “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more; and also I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit.” (13:2) He goes on to state that the many false prophets will disavow their own prophecies: “will be ashamed, every one, of their visions when they prophesy; …each of them will say, “I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the soil; for the land has been my possession since my youth.” (13:4) 

John certainly seems to have picked up this same false prophet theme in the person of the Antichrist.

Revelation 20:11–21:8: John describes the “great white throne judgement,” which we refer to in our creeds, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” The dead, who arrive form out of the sea and from “Death and Hades” will be judged first “according to their works, as recorded in the books…according to what they had done.” (20:12, 13) In an echo of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew, this is the separation of the sheep from the goats and “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (20:15)

This judgement scene is why Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others are anxious to have their children baptized so their name is written in the book of life. More evangelical types such as Baptists believe that a “personal decision for Jesus Christ” is the way to get their names written into the Book of Life.

The judgement complete, John “saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” (21:1) And in perhaps one of the strangest images in the Bible (and given John’s descriptions in this book, that’s saying a lot), John “saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (21:2) And we arrive at one of the more famous lines in this book that describes what heaven as experienced in the new Jerusalem will be like—and it will be far different than the lives John’s readers are experiencing as God comes again to dwell among them:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (21:3, 4)

How encouraging this image must have been to the churches suffering persecution. And amidst the sturm und drang of our own culture, these are certainly words we can hang on to also.

John gives all the credit for what is a brand new creation to Jesus, who is sitting on the great white throne: “See, I am making all things new.” (21:5a) And to provide evidence of John’s bona fides he writes that it is Jesus who has given John the authority to write this book: “Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (21:5b)

John’s take on the Good News, the evangelicum is right here as Jesus himself states, It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” (21:6, 7)

But the binary nature of being for or against God is crystalline as John, still speaking in Jesus’ voice, offers a final sentence on the fate of evildoers: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless,[the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (21:8) s if dying once is not enough, these people are condemned to a second death.